erwin olaf: “I do not know if I am still ‘fresh’ with my ideas... and to be honest I do not give a fuck”
Currently in the midst of an international career retrospective, the iconic Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf talks us through 40 years of creating insurgent, inspiring imagery.
Erwin Olaf, First Studio Shoot, Erwin Olaf, 1981; from Erwin Olaf: I Am (Aperture, 2019)
Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf’s career began, like many great artists before him, completely by chance. Enrolled on a journalism course in the Netherlands in the late 70s, a photography tutor happened to notice his apathy towards writing and encouraged him to join one of his classes instead. “I felt comfortable with the medium immediately,” Erwin explains. “I loved the weight and the cold feeling of the metal of the Nikon FM camera and developing the films and the printing of black-and-white images in the darkroom felt like a homecoming.” The first project assigned to him was to answer the question “What is normal?” via his photography, a question one could argue his work continues to answer to this day.
From these simple, early images, Erwin has grown to become one of the most formative names in Dutch photography -- held in the same high esteem as Anton Corbijn and Viviane Sassen -- his name synonymous with powerful, stylistic and provocative fashion imagery. 40 years after that first photography project, he’s released Erwin Olaf: I Am, a book celebrating his expansive body of work accompanied by a series of retrospective in some of the biggest galleries across the world. Currently Erwin Olaf: Palm Springs is on show at New York's Edwynn Houk Gallery and Erwin Olaf: Women kicks off at London's Hamilton Gallery next week. To mark this occasion, and his 60th birthday this year, we asked Erwin about his craft, his inspiration and his advice to young photographers.
This book commemorates your 60th birthday and 40 years taking photographs. How did you first get into photography?
I started in 1978, when I was in my second year studying journalism in the Netherlands. One of the teachers of photography saw me lost and unhappy in this environment of mostly writing students and he convinced me to come to one of his classes. The first photographs I made were based on a question we as students had to answer to our photography teacher: “What is normal?” My answer was a series of images I took at a home for mentally disabled people.
Do you remember the first time a photographer’s work had a profound effect upon you?
Weegee’s Cross-dresser 1940s getting out of the paddy wagon was the very first photograph that struck me like lightning! The freedom and pride that this picture communicated really struck me. But also the brutal and daring work of Helmut Newton for fashion magazines and Christopher Marcos for Andy Warhol’s Interview. Of course, Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin were very important to me during the first few years.
Do you think it's worth studying photography at university?
I never learned photography at an art school or university... I graduated from a school of journalism, and I learned a lot during my years working as an assistant to a journalistic photographer, who sometimes also worked in the studio. I do not know if it is worth going to an art school or university. My experience with pupils from art school is that there is a lot of ‘taste’ that is educated and less skill, but maybe that is a typical Dutch way of educating at art schools, I do not know.
In an industry saturated with imagery, how do you keep your ideas new and fresh?
I do not know if I am still ‘fresh’ or ‘new’ with my ideas... and to be honest I do not give a fuck. I just follow my nose and make what I think I need to make. I want to stay as close as possible to my own intuition. There are months I do not feel anything, and just when I get desperate something happens, or I read something, or watch a crappy movie or sitcom, or overhear people on public transport, and it gives me an idea or to develop into a visual ‘story’.
What's the biggest change in your approach to photography from then to now?
When I started my own studio in the early 80s there was only a grey or black background, one flash light, a model, and me with my camera. I photographed on instinct and went into the darkroom afterwards and tried to make a perfect silver bromide print. Usually with a joint in the corner of my mouth.
Nowadays there is first the outline of an idea for a group of photographs, often accompanied by ultra short films and even sculptures, based on photographic 3D techniques. I start to research deeper into my ideas with a team in my studio and often some freelancers. We look for historical references, check locations, wardrobe, additional set building and decorating etc. So everything is far more considered, because the series are bigger and have more context. But I also keep the possibility open to create work that is far more simple, like an ongoing series like Ladies' Hats -- a series of boys with female hats -- or still lifes. Last year I reopened my dark room and together with my assistant picked up the silver bromide printing again. This will be my hobby for the near future. Back to basics!
What do see as the most important quality a successful photographer must have?
Being stubborn and open to criticism at the same time. Go for what you really think is important, but also look around to check you are not a complete fool.
What advice would you offer someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Spend some time finding your own technique, and when you have found it, stick to it for five years at least. Maybe you will get a bit bored, but most people need this amount of time to recognise it.
Has the complete immersion of imagery online changed the way you think about, and research, photography?
The invention of photoshop and internet photography has changed things a lot, but this already happened in the early 90s. We always think that there is a status quo, but there is not. The world keeps changing and so will photography.
Do you think iPhone photography has devalued or enhanced the photography industry?
It has created a world in which every day at least one million beautiful pictures are made (and one billion identical selfies). This makes me think a lot about the unimportance of beauty in photography. What does my work add to what is already there? For me it means I have to go deeper into myself and look for the real need to add something to the world of visual art. More and more I start to like the idea of slow photography. Taking my time and not bringing out too much work on too many platforms.
What makes a powerful image?
There should be a riddle in every powerful image, so you are intrigued and invited to look over and over and over again.
Photography © Erwin Olaf